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bears and baldness

One of the strangest stories in the Bible is that time a man is mocked by a group of teenagers for being bald and a couple bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of them. While this story is often quoted by men who have that most masculine feature of male-pattern baldness, there is a significant point behind the story. While it initially reads as a petty use of power, it emphasizes something far greater. Here’s the story.

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.

2 Kings 2:23–24 ESV

The ESV renders this as “small boys”. In the Greek version the same word is used in Genesis 37 to describe Joseph, who was 17 at the time. In the Apocryphal work Tobit, Benjamin is described with this word when he was 19 years old. Though it says “small boys” don’t think young boys who shouldn’t know better. They know full well what they are saying, and what they are really saying is significant. But first, let’s look at the background.

As Israel and later Israel and Judah wandered far from God by violating the covenant, God sent them prophets. Rather than primarily predicting the future, prophets called the people and its leaders to repentance and faith in the God of Israel. One of the greatest prophets was Elijah.

At the beginning of 2 Kings, Ahaziah was king of Israel and fell through a lattice on his roof. He sent messengers to inquire of the prophets of Baal. At the end of 1 Kings Ahaziah was described as doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” as he worshiped and served Baal, thus his desire to hear from Baal’s “prophets” as to whether he would recover.

As Ahaziah remained unable to get out of bed, Elijah was sent to Ahaziah’s people to deliver a prophetic message. That message was simple: Ahaziah won’t recover. His fate was sealed. He had completely and thoroughly angered the Lord and would not listen to the God of Israel, and the outcome of this rebellion would be his death. Thus Elijah’s message was one of doom.

The messengers did not know he was Elijah. When they returned to Ahaziah and told him what the man said, he wanted to know his identity. They didn’t know his name so this is how they described him:

He said to them, “What kind of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

2 Kings 1:7–8 ESV

The phrase “he wore a garment of hair” likely means he himself was hairy. The Greek version makes this clear: he himself was “a hairy man”. Many men wore animal skins as clothing, so this alone would not have identified Elijah, but hairy? When they told Ahaziah that, essentially, some really hairy dude said Ahaziah wouldn’t recover, he knew it had to be Elijah.

The king sent men after Elijah to take him to Ahaziah by force, but fire from heaven came down and consumed all 50 of them. Then he sent another 50 and they, too, died. When he sent yet another group of 50 soldiers, the leader pleaded with Elijah for his life. The Lord told Elijah to go with this man and his soldiers to the king. He then told the king to his face that he was going to die for his final act of rebellion when he sent to inquire of the prophets of Baal. Shortly after this he died.

Elijah, however, would not die. Ever. He had a young protege named Elisha. Elisha, too, was a prophet. The Lord sent Elijah to Bethel and while Elijah wanted Elisha to remain behind, he refused and accompanied him on his journey. Prophets from Jericho met them on the way and revealed that Elijah would be taken away that very day. Yet more prophets would reveal the same thing. On the way Elijah would transfer his prophetic office onto Elisha. Thus Elisha would speak for the Lord.

Later that day Elijah was taken up to heaven in chariots of fire and a whirlwind. To demonstrate the Lord had appointed him in Elijah’s place, Elisha performed a miracle by transforming an undrinkable spring into fresh, clean water. Then we come to the text in question. As he is walking into Bethel a group of young punks came out of the city to jeer at him, and the central thrust of their jeering was to highlight Elisha’s baldness. Whereas Elijah had been hairy, Elisha had no hair. They were essentially saying, “You ain’t Elijah, and you ain’t no real prophet!”

It would be easy to think the problem was their rejection of Elisha, but the rejection is far greater than this: they were rejecting the one who appointed Elisha to this task! Through their taunting these punks were rebelling against the God of Israel. There is little doubt they were on Ahaziah’s side and worshiped Baal. Their jeering and taunting was rebellion on a cosmic scale.

Compare this to David when he had been anointed to be king after Saul. Though he had ample opportunity to seize the throne, he refused. He would not lay a hand on Saul for Saul had been anointed king and though God had later rejected Saul as king and had Samuel anoint David, David would not go against God’s initial choice of Saul. He would wait patiently for the Lord to remove Saul and give the kingdom to David.

These youth are rejecting God’s chosen successor to Elijah. While Elisha would never be as great as Elijah, just as Joshua would never be as great as Moses, to reject the one God placed in that role is an act of rebellion against God himself. While it’s entertaining to cite this passage when people point out one’s lack of lush locks, the issue is far greater, one that we must all heed.

The truth is that submission to proper authority is submission to God himself. The same God who raised up Pharaoh raised up Moses and the same God who raised up Saul raised up David. Further, the same God who raised up Donald Trump also raised Joe Biden.

If we recognize that God governs his world and is sovereign over the appointment of kings and over national elections, we must recognize our responsibility is to submit to proper authority. As the apostles said in Acts 4, there may be times when we must choose to obey God rather than men, but how many of us ever face such a choice? Without such a choice, Scripture is clear: God expects us to obey our leaders. Think of Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in Romans 13.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Romans 13:1–2 ESV

To resist those in authority over us is to resist what God has appointed. The youth in 2 Kings 2 were doing this. It is a serious thing to square up against the one true God and try to throw hands with him by rebelling against the authority he delegates to others. You’d have a better chance against 57-year-old Mike Tyson—and you have no chance against 57-year-old Mike Tyson.

It is clear we must submit to the governing authorities, for this is the direct command of the apostle. But do we have to like them? No, but another apostle has a word about this.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13–17 ESV

Peter says to honor the emperor. At the time he wrote this, the emperor was Nero, who was not honorable. Notice he prefaces this direct command with “for the Lord’s sake”. Believers should be subject to those in authority for the Lord’s sake. He says “this is the will of God” and we must live “as servants of God”. We don’t honor the emperor because the emperor is honorable; we honor the emperor because God is always honorable. In fact, he says we honor everyone, for God is always and ever worthy of honor.

Sadly, as the number of unwanted text messages I’ve been getting from the two political parties indicates, we have entered the election season, though the election is more than a year away. Here is where we can have a direct impact on others for the Lord’s sake. If we approach the various local, state, and national elections coming from the perspective given us by Scripture, we can honor the Lord and live according to his will by honoring those he raises up.

I am not suggesting God voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and then for Joe Biden in 2020. I am saying that in God’s providence, these men were elected and whether you like them or not, our joy and hope is not rooted in who wins elections and which party gains a majority in Congress. Our joy is rooted entirely in our confession: Jesus is Lord. He is Lord whether Democrats are in power or Republicans are in power or the currently fastest-growing third party, the American Solidarity Party, is in power. Our hope is rooted in Christ, not in American politics.

As the election cycle begins to ramp up and the subsequent rhetoric from both parties ramp up, let us remember the most important election of all took place before the foundation of the world. Let us not participate in name-calling. We must not, to use the Elisha story, say to an elected official, “Go up, you baldhead!” for by doing so we might find ourselves squared up against God.

At the end of the day—including next year’s election day—we must demonstrate we, as followers of the Lord Jesus, trust in God’s sovereign providence over his good world, a providence that may allow petty and even evil rulers to assume power over entire nations. The church of Jesus has survived the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams. It has survived the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The church of Jesus has survived Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It will survive Joe Biden’s presidency and whomever eventually replaces him.

In the coming year, let’s live above the fray, above the rhetoric, above the oftentimes hysterical claims about what will happen if the other party wins. Let’s live out our united confession that Jesus is Lord and thereby demonstrate to the world that our hope is rooted in Christ who is coming to reign forever, and not for a four-year term.

Let’s participate in our system of government and let’s vote for the candidates we believe would best serve our nation’s interests, but let’s do so trusting that God is sovereign over all, and it is him we place our trust. Let’s show the world our faith is in Jesus, not a name at the ballot box.